After leading the New York Jets to a surprising victory over the reigning AFC champion Buffalo Bills in his first game as a head coach, a 42-year-old Pete Carroll took a moment take everything in before exiting Rich Stadium.
And looking around the stadium, Carroll noticed the banners celebrating the Bills' recent history under head coach Marv Levy: five division titles in six years and four straight AFC championships.
Carroll has said numerous times that he didn't fully discover his philosophy until he was out of coaching for a year before beginning his run at USC, but the notion of "Win Forever" was sparked in part by those Marv Levy Bills on a September afternoon in 1994.
"They were really good at the time, and somehow—we went for it on fourth down and made it at the goal line, we did some crazy things—and we won the game like 23-10 or something like that," Carroll said, actually selling his team short (the Jets won 23-3). "The game was over, and I went back and walked into the stadium before we get on the buses, I was just hanging out, kind of reveling in the moment, first game and all that stuff. And on the wall of that stadium, they had the championships on the wall there that they had had when Marv was there. They had gone back and back and back to the Super Bowl and all of that, the division championships, all that stuff. That was the moment that it hit me that has affected me ever since that to be really good at something is not to just get there and do it one time. To be really good at something, what really meant something to me was to do it over and over and over and over again so that you can prove who you are and prove what you're worth and prove that you can withstand the changes and adaptations that are there. That's where winning for a long period of time became the essence of what I'm working to achieve."
That old story is relevant now because Carroll has put together a remarkable run of his own in Seattle 21 years and several jobs later. In six seasons under Carroll, the Seahawks have won three NFC West titles, two NFC championships, one Super Bowl and made five trips to the postseason. Prior to Carroll's tenure in Seattle, the Seahawks had won 10 or more games only five times in their history, and never in consecutive seasons. With Sunday's win at Arizona, the Seahawks posted a double-digit win total for the fourth straight season.
"A record that you make in one year, you get the ring and all that stuff, that's great, it's awesome, it's fun, but coming back and doing it again, coming back and showing you're worthy again is the great challenge, that's where I find my greatest inspiration to work and to try to figure things out and try to find ways to be successful," Carroll said. "… That's where I find the source of inspiration and all is to drive for things like that and help other people try to figure it out too."
For the 2015 Seahawks, getting back to the postseason and having a chance to become the first team in the free-agency era to play in three straight Super Bowls didn't come easy, just as there were struggles last season before the Seahawks turned things around on their way to an NFC title. The Seahawks fixed their season in part by making adjustments in personnel and scheme. A bye-week emphasis on getting the ball out quicker and cleaning up the sack numbers, as well as the continued growth of a young line helped pave the way for one of the best stretches of offense in franchise history. And going to Patrick Lewis at center helped accelerate that line growth, while the move to DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane at right cornerback helped the defense improve.
But not everything that changed is as simple as Xs and Os or who was starting at a given position. As was the case last season, this year's team had to find its chemistry and deal with, as linebacker Bruce Irvin put it, "a lot of in-house stuff."
"Everybody came to an agreement to put that to the side and we started a brotherhood, we started playing for each other again," Irvin said. "That's the biggest difference these past four or five weeks."
And as cornerback Richard Sherman points out, success in the NFL often isn't the result of being able to stay on top for 17 weeks, but rather on who can overcome adversity before it's too late.
"That's the heart of a champion," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "You have your peaks and you have your valleys, and a champion overcomes those valleys, they don't let them destroy them. We started off 2-4, everybody said 'All is lost, it's the Super Bowl hangover' or whatever. But guys just continued to stay the course. That's what happened, guys just continued to battle."
Yet even if Sherman dismisses the idea of a Super Bowl hangover, Carroll acknowledged that his team did have to work through some issues, just like it did last year when they were coming off the unique challenges that winning a Super Bowl can present.
"We had to get through last year," Carroll said. "We had to get through the finish of the season—there was no question it had a big impact—and we did, we made it. It was, as we said when we first realized what we were into, that it was probably going to be different for everybody. Everybody's going to have to deal with it on their own, and we were going to try to be extraordinarily patient, and understanding and caring, as we worked our way through it. But it had an impact. There was a lot of stuff that happened in this offseason that had an impact. It's no different than what happened the year before when we won the whole thing… We had similar issues. Every season it's something. It could be personnel losses, coaches, players, quarterbacks leave, whatever. Things happen, you have to deal with it. That's just a microcosm of life. You have to deal with stuff and then you move ahead."
The Seahawks' ability to move ahead is what has them back in the playoffs for the fourth straight year; what has them one step further toward Carroll's goal of "winning for a long period of time became the essence of what I'm working to achieve" in Buffalo 21 years ago.
What comes next remains to be seen, but it's safe to say that a 42-year-old, first-time head coach of the 1994 New York Jets would have been pretty impressed by this current Seahawks run of success.
"I'm proud to say we're still fighting, and here we go again. We'll see what happens… We all hung together, and look at us now. This is a great group. They're flying, they can't wait to get to work. They're fighting and playing for one another, and in great fashion. In a fashion that makes us really proud of how we finished this year. So with that, we're ready for playoff time."
In their final game of the regular season the Seahawks dominated the NFC West Champs on the road with a 36-6 victory in Glendale, Ariz.